Read this first-hand account of a morning at Robben Island Museum to find out why the historical location is so much more than a journey back in time.
A long walk to freedom
“A long walk to freedom,” I quipped looking down the pathway that leads to the main gate of the Robben Island Prison. “This is the short walk to freedom,” our tour guide corrected me. “Nelson Mandela did the long walk.”
He was right, of course. Walking in the footsteps of Nelson Mandela doesn’t mean you’re standing in his shoes.
We’ve been walking in the footsteps of the great man for the last two hours and I was astounded by the fine detail our guides attended to, to recreate what it felt like to be locked up for nothing more than fighting for what you believed in.
Inside the prison Ntozelizwe Talakumeni also known as “Ntoza”, a former political prisoner turned tour guide, unexpectedly slammed a cell door shut with a deafening clang. “That’s what it sounded like when we went to bed,” he said.
Ntoza also remembered the Afrikaans phrase the guards used to announce the arrival of a new inmate: dankie, hek (gate, thank you) and spoke of the drastic measures of censorship taken to make sure the prisoners didn’t get outside information via the mail.
Standing outside Mandela’s cell was as exhilarating and humbling as I expected it to be. The blankets, however, seemed less and the cell just a little smaller than I imagined. Hang on. I’m starting at the end. Our journey started way back on the mainland at the V&A’s Clock Tower where we boarded a ferry called Sea Princess.
Dolphins and freedom
Skipping across the waves on the ferry – the wind in my face; dolphins playing close-by – completely busted the myth that a trip to Robben Island was a historical activity reserved for academics.
Sitting on the upper deck I never felt more alive.
Yes, the prisoners travelled the same route on the dreaded Blouberg cargo ship, but with Table Mountain in the distance and the prison a world-renowned museum since 1999 – I couldn’t help but feel free.
Wildlife, a lighthouse and World War 2 relics
Robben Island teems with wildlife. Some “residents”, like the migratory Curlew Sandpipers, only stay for the summer while others including Fallow Deer were introduced on the island for the sole purpose of hunting by guards who, seemingly, had trouble keeping themselves busy tending to prisoners trapped on an island.
The Robben Island Lighthouse still alerts ships to the perilous danger of the island’s coast and is the only lighthouse in South Africa to use a flashing light instead of a revolving light. Hidden in the bushes, massive World War 2 canons, still ominously operational, takes aim at the open ocean.
A quarry with a cave
One of the stand-out moments for me during tour was looking out over the limestone quarry where Madiba, and so many others, crushed limestone for no apparent reason while contracting TB in the process.
A rectangle cave on the far side of the dusty hole is where the men were allowed to have lunch and where, our tour guide proclaimed, the first lines of the Long Walk to Freedom were written – effectively making the cave the birthplace of the new South Africa.
A very long walk to freedom
After completing the tour around the prison, Ntoza saw us off with a beaming smile and “Nkosi”, which is Xhosa for thank-you. I thanked him, shamefully, in English, and started down the path to the main gate that really did feel long after only about an hour in the prison. Following the insightful tour, I tried to imagine how long that path must have felt after a full 18 years on the island. I couldn’t.
Booking a tour
To book a tour to Robben Island Museum, contact the Nelson Mandela Gateway on +27 (0)21 413 4200 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Ferries depart 9am, 11am, 1pm and 3pm – weather permitting. Adult: R300 | Children under 18 years: R160
The tour includes
- The prison house where Robert Sobukwe, leader of the Pan African Congress, was held in isolation
- The Lime Quarry
- The Male Leper Church
- The 19th century lighthouse
- Second World War fortifications, including big gun emplacements
- The Garrison Church
- The Commissioner’s Residence
- Several shipwrecks
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One Destination, 7 Unbelievable Experiences
There is no one way to explore all of the Cape Town Big 7, and much of what makes each of them so special is the variety of things to see and do at each. So if possible, take your time to explore each of the city’s most visited tourist attractions in as much depth as possible – as any local will tell you, you can spend a lifetime at each of the Big 7 and still not tire of them. Find the 3 and 4 day itineraries and tips here.